Sunday, January 27, 2013

Let's Talk About Atlas Games' WaRP: The Wanton Role-Playing System

Let's talk about the WaRP system from Atlas Games. For those who may not know, these are the rules, now released under the OGL, that powered Atlas' groundbreaking game Over The Edge. For me, Over The Edge was really one of the first freeform and rules light games that really clicked for me. Over The Edge came out in 1992, designed by +Jonathan Tweet and then revised by +Robin Laws. Over The Edge was a weird game, with a setting that is strange even for RPGs, and the light approach to the rules for the game really benefited that weirdness. By focusing on a stripped down approach to the system it meant that players (and game masters) could come up with strange concepts for characters (I once ran an Over The Edge game at a convention where the characters were all different media incarnations of the author Hunter S. Thompson, racing against time to solve a murder on the streets of Al Amarja, the default setting of the game) without having to worry about having to rationalize their ideas within the framework of the game's systems. It is like Hassan I Sabban's famous quote "Nothing is true, everything is permitted."

Many game systems have the mindset of "If it is not covered by rules, it is not permitted." With a system like WaRP, that is turned on its head with the idea that the rules are there to help and to guide, but not to limit. That's a sensibility that was once much more prevalent in the design of RPGs that I think people have lost over the years. For some, the idea that rules have to cover every distinct possibility that could ever arise during a gaming session means that they are protected from unfairness, either from the rules themselves or by those who run the games. Sadly, no matter how explicit rules may be, or how many of them that there are in a game, ultimately they will not be able to stop someone who wants to make their fun more important than the others at the table.

WaRP uses an idea of defining characters with fairly freeform, and player-defined, traits. Fans of more contemporary games like PDQ or Fate will recognize the DNA of these ideas within those games. Each character is defined by four traits, one of them a disadvantage of some sort or another. Each of these traits has a physical "sign" or tell that helps to define the character's physicality. This way, the interior life of the character informs the exterior. It is an elegant way to cover many steps in a streamlined fashion. Physical traits (like Tough, Former Soldier, Boxer, and the like) also help to define the hit points of a character. Traits can also determine if a character has special or exceptional powers and abilities (called Fringe Powers in the game). Fringe Powers can cover anything and everything from psychic abilities to magic to the powers of super-heroes to the extraordinary abilities of aliens and extradimensional beings. And WaRP does all of this in 28 pages (which includes the OGL as well).

Developed for a surrealistic game of conspiracies and strangeness, this basic engine can be used to cover a lot of different sorts of games. It can be used for playing super-heroes. Author +trey causey has been using it to run online games set in his excellent Weird Adventures setting. By the way, I cannot recommend Weird Adventures highly enough if you are a fan of the heroic pulps and the fantasy literature that informed the creation of D&D. WaRP is a flexible gaming system that has a lot of juice in it. If you haven't checked it out before, I suggest doing that now and maybe checking out Over The Edge, or the supplements for the game that Atlas Games has produced over the years. If you're looking for a simple and streamlined game that's different from all of the D&D-inspired games available and yet has had a huge influence on lighter, more story-oriented styles of gaming, you really should check this game out.